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White Sox offseason look-ahead: Lucas Giolito has work to do (and so does Rick Hahn)

Vinnie Duber Avatar
October 13, 2022

How did Lucas Giolito think his season went?

“Honestly, not good.”

Well, you don’t have to be a major league pitcher to come to that conclusion.

Surprisingly, Giolito was the weakest link in the White Sox’ rotation in 2022, at least the rotation that stood at season’s end, months after Dallas Keuchel had been jettisoned after eight starts. No one was surprised by Keuchel’s results, not after an ugly 2021 that was, until this year, the worst season of his otherwise accomplished career. Giolito, though, had been an All Star, finished in the top 11 in AL Cy Young voting and flirted with ace status after overcoming his “worst pitcher in baseball” season in 2018.

But the string of good fortune stopped this year, and Giolito looked far more reminiscent of his 2018 self than the guy who earned his spot in that omnipresent Guaranteed Rate commercial.

A decent finish allowed Giolito to head into the winter with a 4.90 ERA, lowering it below 5.00, where it had stood since mid August. But though ending on a positive note was undoubtedly a good way to step into the offseason, it was an inarguable struggle for Giolito much of the year.

“I look back, and it was a lot of things I’d probably do differently,” he said at the end of September. “Especially in the middle (of the season), I feel I was – instead of just trying to take it day by day and make a little adjustment here and there – I was trying to do a lot. To the point where it was like trying to force things, and it almost made it worse at times. Big learning experience there. Can take that with me for the rest of my career.”

It will be a mighty important offseason for Giolito as he enters his final season before hitting free agency.

As recently as the spring, fans were begging for the White Sox to find a way to lock Giolito up past 2023, to hand out the kind of extension that made Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Yoán Moncada part of the long-term planning on the South Side.

Then 2022 happened, for both Giolito and the White Sox, and suddenly a frustrated fan base is looking at things much differently. Those extensions handed down to young position players have boxed in Rick Hahn’s front office when it comes to making significant roster change this winter. And Giolito has plummeted, in the minds of many quick-to-tweet folks, from a top-of-the-rotation starter to someone who deserves little more than the No. 5 spot on the starting staff.

Surely, it’s not quite that dreary, and Giolito has a three-year track record of results to show just how valuable he could be to a rotation. But indeed 2022 was a relatively miserable campaign for the right-hander, who saw big drops in velocity, a couple of lingering early-season health issues, an offseason weight gain that didn’t work out as planned and way too many walks – not to mention all those runs on the board.

Along the way, though, and particularly near season’s end, there were positive signs. Giolito managed to keep the White Sox in plenty of games with his stuff basically abandoning him for much of the year. Over his final six starts, he turned in a 3.48 ERA. His last start of the year saw him allow just two runs in seven innings; he hadn’t had a start of that many innings and that few runs since May 10.

“It was a good way to end it,” he said that day. “Just knowing that, despite my stuff being down, that if I go out there with a clear mind and competitive spirit, with focus on each pitch, and execute, focus on commanding, that I can have some good outings and give this team a chance to win games. That’s my job as a starter: just go out there and try to be efficient, try to get as deep as I can. I haven’t really gone deep the last few, but tonight was a good one, getting through seven innings.

“Probably this last month, there were some good outings in there and some not so good ones. But my overall attitude and approach to pitching and competing, a lot more clear-minded. And that’s something I’m definitely going to take with me going into my offseason work and then carrying it into the next season.”

One OK month at the end of a bad year doesn’t equal automatic success in 2023, and that makes Giolito’s offseason work incredibly important, not just for his personal future and the potential contract he’ll get next winter, but for the White Sox, who hope to keep riding this pitching staff as they attempt to reverse their fortunes and chase a championship next year.

Dylan Cease, Lance Lynn and Michael Kopech figure to make up 60 percent of the team’s starting rotation, and Giolito seems a safe bet to return, too, even if Hahn & Co. aren’t taking any potential moves off the table. But what will Giolito’s 2023 role look like? Will he return to form as an ace type who can deliver in huge moments? Or will he be relegated to the back of the rotation and be expected to do little more than eat innings?

If there’s one thing to focus on when it comes to a Giolito renaissance, it’s Ethan Katz. The White Sox’ pitching coach has known Giolito forever, coaching him in high school, and he was key in turning Giolito from the “worst pitcher in baseball” into an All Star between the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Giolito needs fixing once more. This time, Katz is even closer to his longtime pupil, a witness to every pitch Giolito threw this season.

“He’s seeing teams that have seen him a lot. They’re making some adjustments, so we have to make some adjustments,” Katz said of Giolito back in early September, when the midseason search for Giolito’s normalcy was still in progress. “There’s stuff that we’ve looked at behind the scenes that we can do a little bit better. There’s been stuff mechanically where he’s just been off just a bit, then trying to battle and trying to get back.

“He’s had some days that have been really good, some days that were OK, some days that he doesn’t like.”

More consistency will obviously be key for Giolito in 2023. But there’s no way of knowing whether that will happen or not until 2023 comes along, when Hahn’s offseason work will be mostly, if not entirely, behind him. That makes for an interesting approach to the rotation this winter, with Johnny Cueto hitting the free-agent market and punching a hole in the White Sox’ starting staff.

What kind of pitcher does Hahn chase to round things out? Getting someone to fill a fifth spot would show confidence in a Giolito bounce back. Getting someone to stick up at the top with Cease and Lynn would show a willingness to take out an insurance policy on what Giolito can contribute – not to mention a possible insurance policy for 2024, should Giolito leave the South Side as a free agent after either a tremendous or tremendously disappointing campaign – or anything in between.

Until he isn’t, though, Giolito is very much a part of this starting staff, and the work he’ll do with Katz this winter will be crucial to turning things around and giving the White Sox a starting pitcher they can count on, something he was for three very, very good years.

“Lucas, knowing how hard he works,” Cease told CHGO last month, “I think he’s going to come back ready to go.”

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